The UK’s homegrown conspiracy groups with links to QAnon

The most comprehensive analysis of the UK’s anti-vax community reveals that just 0.32% of the population is active in the movement, contradicting its claim to represent “the 99%”.

The first analysis of its kind shows that the anti-vax movement is far smaller than expected, with about 220,000 unique active users identified within a network of 427 groups on the messaging app Telegram, its preferred platform.

Analysts, however, expressed concern about the “high crossover” between anti-vax ideologies and QAnon, the online conspiracy theory whose supporters stormed the US Capitol and whose violent tendencies prompted the FBI to label it a domestic terrorism threat in 2019.

The analysis, by Logically, a tech company that tackles misinformation by using factcheckers and open-source intelligence, also found that the conspiracy groups’ network structure reveals “sophisticated and repeated organisational tactics” throughout the UK.

Jordan Wildon, analyst at Logically, said: “Group membership was lower than originally expected. There are still a lot of people involved, but given how loud they are and how much attention they receive, they give the impression that they form a much larger group.”

He added: “Alongside that, the notion that they are “the 99%” helps draw others into the movement as they consider themselves to be part of the majority which, as our findings show, couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Dominating the UK anti-vax community are 13 national networks including the Great Reopening, supported by prominent coronavirus conspiracy theorists such as David Icke – who has claimed that the world is run by a race of lizard people – and Jeremy Corbyn’s brother, Piers.

Another is Alpha Men Assemble, whose supporters have run military-style training sessions in preparation for a “war” against the state, and who were among those who accosted the Labour leader Keir Starmer last week.

To identify which part of the UK had the most proactive anti-vax community, analysts investigated a sample of 152 Covid-conspiracy Telegram groups and found that 81% – or 44,914 members – were “unique”, that is individuals who had posted rather than bots (software designed to simulate a human activity).

The highest number of active unique users was identified in the south-west of England, London and the south-east, followed by the north-west and east Midlands.

Each network, according to the research, had as many as 80 regional affiliated Telegram groups and was able rapidly to disseminate livestreams from UK protests, or inflammatory and misleading articles on Covid.

The YouTube channel Resistance GB broadcast the attack on Starmer by anti-vax protesters live last week.

Piers Corbyn, one of the movement’s most high-profile figures, shared a video of his supporters mobbing Starmer to his Telegram channel.

Examining the structure of the online anti-vax community, researchers found that smaller, regional groups were crucial in orchestrating “direction action, strategies on a smaller scale and recruitment”.

Wildon said that the structure of Telegram, increasingly under fire for hosting violent extremists, had had a “huge impact on the shape of the UK Covid disinformation space” with its creation of an ecosystem where conspiracy theories could be easily exchanged.

He added: “After platforms cracked down on QAnon and Covid disinformation, the rise of Telegram has created a microcosm with much fewer boundaries between groups and ideologies and a far more rapid form of dissemination between them, both at an international level and a national one.”

Experts have coined the term “cultic milieu” to explain why UK conspiracy theories – such as those involving 5G masts and Covid – QAnon-fuelled anti-lockdown protests in the US, and David Icke’s return to prominence as a figurehead of disinformation have tended to weave together since the first lockdowns were introduced in 2020.

Wilson said that the exporting of the QAnon conspiracy to the UK via the #saveourchildren hashtag had allowed for a particular mix of “paedophile, satanic deep state meta-conspiracy to serve as an epistemological frame for Covid”.

That, he said, partly explained why “paedo protector” is a common insult thrown at police at anti-vax and anti-lockdown protests, with the term shouted at Starmer during the protests last week.

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